UnCERTain? ' Practice Pointers For Certifying A Question Of State Law In Federal Court

Published date26 September 2022
Subject MatterGovernment, Public Sector, Litigation, Mediation & Arbitration, Constitutional & Administrative Law, Trials & Appeals & Compensation
Law FirmEckland & Blando
AuthorMs Anne N. St. Amant

Certification1 is a legislatively created procedure which empowers Minnesota state courts to answer a federal court's question of state law.2 There are many benefits to certifying questions, including relieving federal judges from having to decide important state issues of law and avoiding contradictory precedent on the state and federal level.3 While certification often causes complaint and delay, it can "in the long run save time, energy and resources," and "help[] build a cooperative judicial federalism."4

In Minnesota, certification is most often invoked by the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota considering issues of Minnesota state law. The power to determine state law is vested in the Minnesota Supreme Court which can review and answer a question of law from any United States court "if the answer may be determinative of an issue in pending litigation in the certifying court and there is no controlling appellate decision, constitutional provision, or statute."5 However, federal courts ultimately possess discretion as to whether to use a state's certification procedure, "even when state law is in doubt."6 Importantly, unless there is a close question of law and a federal court is without "state sources enabling a nonconjectural determination, a federal court should not avoid its responsibility to determine all issues before it."7

Before a federal court can certify a question for review by the Minnesota Supreme Court, the court must conclude that the issue is central to the disposition of the case.8 Then, the federal court will consider the following:

  • Is the court "genuinely uncertain" about the issue? 9

The most important consideration a court reviews is whether the court is genuinely "uncertain" about a question of state law; if it is not, certification is improper.10 To be "uncertain", there must be no controlling Minnesota Supreme Court precedent on the dispositive issue, i.e., the question must be "unanswered." This essentially requires the federal court to determine that there is "enough guidance so that the decision . . . is not merely conjectural."11 A federal court deploys several tools to determine whether the issue at hand appropriate for certification.

The federal court may find an issue ripe for certification if the state court had previously signaled its willingness to change a substantive rule of law without definitively ruling.12 For example, in Guillard v. Niagara Machine and Tool Works, the United States...

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